The Board of Education’s upcoming proposal to weaken social studies requirements for Hawaii’s high school students poses serious threats not only to students but to our society in Hawaii—and (since our national democracy works not only as individual states but also as a whole) to the country as well.
Hawai`ians decided some years ago that “Education must do no less than advance the endowment of human culture itself, so that each succeeding generation finds itself further along the road towards peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability in a society guided by creativity, compassion, and curiosity,” as stated in Act 51, SB3238, SD2, HD2, CD.
The current social studies requirements support this laudable, difficult, and complex goal with a mandatory course in “Participation in Democracy” (usually called “civics” by other states) and additional courses in other areas of social studies, including required national and state history, and electives in economics, psychology, ethics and other areas of philosophy, women’s studies, geography, psychology, etc.
Such courses teach more than their content information. They also teach skills that are crucial for successful functioning in the 21st century—critical thinking, empathy, how to become engaged with our/ their society. Teaching them in public high schools helps ensure that everyone benefits by living in a culture with an engaged citizenry.
Engagement with their society has been shown to help keep young people from drugs, from crime, from despair—all of which have catastrophic effects on them as individuals, on their families and friends, and on society as a whole.
It is hard to feel engaged when we don’t understand what we witness and experience. It is hard to feel engaged and optimistic when we don’t know how to effect change in our society through our government.
There are especially horrific consequences when the disengagement intensifies to the point of rage—when people begin to act on their sense of disengagement and powerlessness. Disengagement places a heavy burden on society through the institutions we create to combat its effects—on emergency rooms and clinics, justice systems and prisons, rehab centers and halfway houses.
The rage of the politically disenfranchised can be hard to quantify—but as those of us who have been following advances in economics over the past couple decades have seen, economists are increasingly able to take account even in financial terms for things that were once held to be immeasurable—the value of women’s work at home as wives, housekeepers and mothers, for instance.
Ultimately the costs of increasing citizens’ sense of helplessness, estrangement, and disengagement that result from dropping social studies courses from the required curriculum include:
Violent crime (against individuals): while violent crime is known to have complex causes, it is in some cases a result of inadequate understanding of others. Many such crimes in Hawai`i are reported as arising in situations of what turns out to be misunderstandings of others’ behavior.
Hate crime (against categories of people) has horrific consequences in terms of loss of life and loss of the contributions to society of those injured or killed, the intimidation of communities and individuals, the waste of lawyers’ time and of community resources for incarceration of criminals, and on and on.
Crime intended as protest against the government by those who feel estranged from the government —for which we all now pay indirect costs, not only financially in terms of increased security for lawmakers and elected officials (and even candidates), but in terms of loss of our personal time when we must submit to security checks, or walk or drive out of our way because we live in a society that has become so threatening.
Crime intended as protest against the government has more direct costs as well. Arson of federal lands, to take one extreme example, is rather common in some parts of the country—as a means of protesting federal policies that might better find legal means of redress. The costs of fighting these fires, of firefighters’ lives lost, of homes and businesses lost when the fires get out of control, ought to be recognized as a cost of—admittedly among two or three other factors—inadequate education in how our government works and preparation for civic engagement. In Hawai`i, sabotage takes less dramatic forms. But damage to the oceans and public lands can be costly to repair even when it’s hard to see.
People who cannot understand the (increasingly varied and complex) world around them and who therefore lack compassion, and who feel disempowered, often try to destroy not only the government but churches and other groups that enrage them. The costs of these crimes are also partially a result of fear based on ignorance—the kind of ignorance that social studies combats.
The environmental costs of such fires and other forms of anti-government environmental sabotage should also be factored into the costs of inadequate social studies education. These include loss of habitat, loss of biological diversity, loss of natural resources that can be left alone or used by business, loss of recreational land and of the spiritual resources and aesthetic joy nature provides.
Aside from rage, either momentary (against this stranger in front of me doing something I object to), or more cultivate, seething and long-term, resulting in political violence, are the lost opportunities—financial, social, artistic, scientific, etc. Businesses routinely complain they suffer from the inadequate knowledge and thinking/ writing skills of new young hires—and find themselves in the position of needing to train them themselves —although there may be unrecognized costs to the employee who never discovers the reasons behind his lost accounts or her being let go. These businesses include STEM companies, who must understand their users’ needs, as well as be able to communicate to customers how to use their products, for instance. Scientists today need not only critical thinking skills, but advanced social skills to negotiate the complexities of scientific research and collaboration.
This analysis is far from exhaustive. Many more examples could be given, and more types of costs examined. It is clear from even this rudimentary analysis, however, that the costs to society of weakening social studies are high. Particularly at a time when the world is changing so fast, we need all the advantages we can muster not only to adapt but to protect our historic heritages as we do so.
About the author: *A consultant & independent scholar, Mara Miller is a member of AlohaPOSSE (Preserve Our Social Studies Education). She is also an East-Asia specialist, philosopher (Ph.D., Yale Univ.), Japanese art historian (M.A., Univ. of Michigan), abstract painter, activist, & a former tractor-trailer driver, weaver, & mountaineer. She consults for prosecutors, museums, businesses, & universities, & has taught at colleges & universities, most recently the Univ. of Oregon.